Studies in Unfamiliar Psalms No. 8


Psalm 112

We are almost done with this short series. When it is complete, I hope to spend a few Lord’s Day evenings considering with you some aspects of the doctrine of the Trinity, of our confession of a God who is both one and three, three distinct persons in the single Godhead. We can never think enough about God or contemplate enough the wonderful mystery of his being. But tonight Psalm 112. Again, this is a psalm typical of a number of others, but not so well known itself. It is a wisdom psalm. You will notice its similarity to Psalm 1, for example, in its opening line. It is also an example of an alphabetic or acrostic psalm, a fact that is only visible in Hebrew not in its English translation, in that each succeeding line of the poem begins with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet. There are 22 lines in the poem in Hebrew – ignore the verses and consider the individual lines – just as there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. If you ever want to know what the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are, you can always turn to Psalm 119 as each section of that acrostic poem begins with a particular Hebrew letter. So all the verses of the first section begin with Aleph all the verses of the next section begin with Beth and typically in English translations the editors actually identify the letter above each section of Psalm 119. Interestingly, the psalm just before this, Psalm 111, is organized in the same way alphabetic or acrostic way.

Text Comment

v.1       “Blessed” or “happy” is the man… is, as you know, a typical way to begin a wisdom psalm (e.g. Psalms 1, 128), as it is the way the Lord begins his “Sermon on the Mount.” One way of describing the godly or wise man, a description often found in the Bible, in the OT and the NT, is that he is a man who loves God’s law and desires to obey it.

v.2       As you know, the OT, indeed the entire Bible, shows great interest in family solidarity through the generations. It is one of the greatest conceivable blessings to a believing man and womanthat their children are walking with the Lord and showing promise of raising their children to do the same. It is everywhere one of the Lord’s greatest blessings that this should be so, one of a believer’s greatest rewards, as it is a foundation of the church’s confidence for the future. I was talking to one of our Presbytery pastors the other day and we fell to talking about the state of the Christian faith in our land and what it portends for the future of our churches. But, however discouraging the statistics may be, and they are not very encouraging and have not been for quite some time in the United States regarding the strength of the Christian faith, it remains the case that Christian families can in any and every circumstance raise their children to love and serve the Lord and if enough of them do, the church will always have a significant, solid, and consequential future, no matter the spiritual landscape of the culture as a whole. It is a beautiful and very revealing way of speaking when Paul speaks of Timothy’s faith as first dwelling in his grandmother and his mother. As parents it is your privilege to see your faith come to dwell in your children and then to see it come to dwell in your grandchildren. You sometimes hear it said that “God has no grandchildren.” I remember that was the motto of a Luis Palau evangelistic crusade in Scotland some years ago. Usually the phrase is meant to convey the necessity of every person believing in Jesus for himself or herself and taken that way there is certainly nothing wrong with it except for the fact that it seems to minimize the hope that God has given Christian parents regarding their children. While being born in a Christian home does not guarantee that a son or daughter will grow up to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ irrespective of other things, there is certainly an expectation that he or she shall grow up to be such a follower of Jesus Christ. It ought to be so. This is everywhere the perspective of the Word of God because it is one of the supreme promises that God himself makes to his people in his covenant. We certainly agree that every child of a Christian home must become a true believer and must live the Christian life. But the faith of true believers very often, indeed in most cases, lived first in parents or in parents and grandparents. It is God’s often repeated promise that it should be so! “I will be a God to you and to your children after you.”

v.4       The blessedness of this man’s life becomes a blessing to others. His goodness is extended to others or, better, God’s goodness to him is extended through him to others. Note that God’s man is described in the same way God is described: “gracious, merciful, and righteous.” It is God’s will that his people should be conformed to his image, that is, to be like him.

v.5       The generosity of this man is particularly highlighted. Having money is always a temptation, but this man is not only generous but righteous. He doesn’t use his money, as rich people often do, to gain privileges for himself at the expense of others. This man’s money is the blessing of many people.

v.8       Though a man with means, that is, with much to lose, he is not given to fear. Wealthy and powerful men have adversaries but the Lord gives his man victory over them.

v.9       This is a man other people will remember! By the way, Paul quotes this verse in 2 Cor. 9:9 to make the points both that God loves a cheerful giver and, as here, that God blesses a man in order that he might use his God-given means to help others.

v.10     In the real world one must face the fact that many people do not have this man’s character or this man’s reward. And those who do not have them are often jealous of those who do. But their punishment is that while they fail they must watch God’s people succeed and enjoy his blessing forever.

Now I want to use this short psalm as an exercise in building a biblical intelligence. There is way of thinking about all things that is taught us in Holy Scripture but it is not always immediately obvious at a first reading of the Bible. It takes time and attention to learn to think about things the way the Bible does. It takes time to appreciate the way the Bible describes the world and the life of faith. In particular, there is in this psalm a characteristic way of speaking about the blessedness of life in Christ. This man’s children are not only a credit to him spiritually, but grow up to be men and women of influence and stature. Because this is a godly man he is a prosperous man with income sufficient to be generous to many others. His character is such that the Lord has rewarded him with virtually all that a man could want. He is the object of jealousy on the part of those who are not believers because of the happy condition of his life.

What are we supposed to do with this? This is, after all, a description not of one singularly fortunate fellow, but, as we read in v. 1, it is the description of every man who fears the Lord and delights in his commandments. We are naturally left wondering if we have missed something. This man’s fortunes seem to exceed ours, seem to exceed those of most Christians we know, perhaps of all Christians we know. And, of course, the psalms and the rest of the Bible often describe the believing life in a way that seems over-the-top to us. Take the famous statement in Psalm 103:2-3:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, and who heals all your diseases.”

He heals all our diseases? When I was a boy it was not uncommon to see people who were suffering from the ravages of polio, who were stricken by the disease before Dr. Salk and the polio vaccine. We had a home missionary in our denomination by the name of Hays Henry whose work was much like Chris Granberry’s work today on the Yakama Indian Reservation. Mr. Henry worked on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma. He had been stricken with polio as a boy or young man – I can’t remember when – and when he went to the pulpit to preach or to make a report on his work he would work his way there on crutches, something that sticks in the mind of children. The Lord didn’t heal Mr. Henry’s disease, but Psalm 103 says that the Lord heals all our diseases. We have a pastor in the Presbytery who is missing the lower parts of his arms as a result of a birth defect. The Lord didn’t correct that physical problem either. We have brother and sisters in this congregation whose life situation does not seem to be described in Psalm 103:3.  There are plenty of people who read Psalm 103:3 and conclude that it is a statement untrue on its face. And there are plenty of Christian people who get used to reading that kind of statement, this kind of psalm as in 112 and, perhaps in some large part because it does not seem to conform to their own experience, skip over the words largely without thinking about them. They trust the Bible to be absolutely true, but they don’t know what to make of the statement that the Lord heals all the diseases of his people. This is my great concern. I want you to hear the wonderful promises of the Word of God and believe them, without qualification and doubt. But that takes biblical intelligence.

In Psalm 113:8-9 we read that the Lord “gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children.” But we know only too well that he doesn’t do that for every Christian woman. In a passage quite similar to Psalm 112 we read in Psalm 37:25-26:

“I have been young, and now am old, yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging for bread. He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing.”

I suppose there have been any number of Christians – women sitting with a starving child on their lap – in Darfur and in other places and other times who have read that text and wondered what to make of it. If there was any bread to be had they would beg for it to keep their children alive. It is not as if no Christian has ever starved to death. And it isn’t only the Psalms, as you know. In Isaiah 58 we read that if a man or woman will honor the Sabbath day as the Lord’s Day,

“then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth…”

But surely there have been many devout Christians who have loved the Lord’s Day who, nevertheless, struggled in life through many afflictions or died an early death or watched their children die. Again, what are to do with the Bible’s way of speaking? How are we to understand it as the Word of God that cannot be broken?

It is sometimes alleged that this way of speaking is characteristic of the Old Testament and a feature of its more childlike and unsophisticated faith. We are sometimes told that in the New Testament, to the contrary, we are taught that however much faith and godliness may bring spiritual blessing they will not necessarily bring earthly rewards. But the fact is we have the same kind of descriptions of the blessedness of the godly in the New Testament that we find in the Old. In his Sermon on the Mount the Lord Jesus teaches his disciples that if they seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness – as did this man in Psalm 112 – all the other things will be added to them (i.e. food, clothing, and shelter). And in the context the impression is not that they will be given just enough food, clothing, and shelter to eke out an existence on the earth. In a conversation with his disciples recorded in Mark 10:29-30 we are taught that the faithful follower of Jesus, the one willing to make sacrifices for his sake, will not fail to receive a hundred times what they have given up now in this time, and less we mistake his point he specifies exactly what sort of things  they will receive in this life: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands. That is a list very like the blessings that will accompany godliness enumerated in the Old Testament.

In 2 Corinthians 9:11 we read that the one who gives cheerfully to the Lord “will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way.” That is the text a lot of faith healers use to get people to give them large sums of money. You give to me, which is the same thing as giving to the Lord, and you can be sure because of 2 Cor. 9:11 that you will get that new car or bigger house. Did you see the article in the Atlantic a few issues back? “Did Christianity Cause the Real Estate Crisis?” It’s humiliating. This author was simply enumerating the places all over the United States where people bought a house they could not afford because they were assured by their health and wealth pastors that it was God’s gift to them. Again the description is very similar to what we have here in Psalm 112. And in Eph. 6:3 we read that if children will honor their parents, as is right, they will enjoy a long life.

Now, what are we supposed to do with this? We are the Lord’s disciples, we love him and serve him, however imperfectly – though we know the righteous man in Psalm 112 and the disciples in Mark 10 were hardly perfect – but we have not been loaded down with real estate as a result of our following Christ. None of the Lord’s disciples to whom that promise of houses and fields was first made, no matter all the sacrifices they so willingly made for the Lord Jesus and for the cause of the gospel, none of them so far as we know ended his life possessing great wealth as we might think Mark 10:29-30 promised all of them would.

Let me suggest three perspectives that the reader of the Bible ought to bring to such statements as we find here in Psalm 112, statements that seem to suggest that the faithful will enjoy a measure of God’s blessing in this world beyond what most believers actually experience.

  1. In the first place, we must respect the nature of Hebrew idiom and Hebrew thought.

 

Every writer of Holy Scripture, Old Testament and New, was a Semite with a Semitic way of thinking and of expressing himself. The Bible is the Word of God but it was written by men who expressed themselves in the ways typical of their time and culture. We know that and that is not a controversial point. It is immediately obvious to us when we read the Bible that it wasn’t written by a 21st century American. But if the Bible was written by Hebrews and Jews then it was written in a way that was natural for them. It was written, we say today, in their idiom, in their characteristic form of speech and writing. We would not say, for example, “laws of justice,” we would say “just laws.” But Hebrew prefers nouns to adjectives, as any first year Hebrew student soon learns. We would not say “Holy of Holies” or “Song of Songs” but those are typical Hebrew superlatives; the “Most Holy Place,” the “Most Beautiful Song.”

Well, in the same way, Hebrew idiom is given to hyperbole and to an absoluteness of statement that any careful reader of the Bible notices everywhere he looks. In the modern West we are used to making distinctions, we add explanatory clauses to our sentences, we place a premium on precision. In the world of the lawsuit you have got to say things exactly as they are, all conditions accounted for. But Hebrew expression is not like that. It places a premium on the impression of truth and is much more inclined to what we would think of as overstatement.

You are familiar with the classic case of Jacob loving Rachel and hating Leah, which in the context of Jacob’s family history as narrated in Genesis clearly means that Jacob preferred Rachel to Leah. If we doubted that, we have a similar case in the Lord’s own teaching and two versions of it. In Luke, the Lord says that if anyone comes to him and doesn’t hate his father and mother, wife and children…even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” [14:26] Almost certainly that is in fact precisely what Jesus said. But in Matthew, a man who understood how people might misunderstand the Lord’s words, puts it a way “better attuned to Gentile ears and sensibilities”: “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me…” [10:37; Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible, 111] An absolute expression actually is used to describe a relative contrast. It is very interesting that this characteristic of thought and expression is still very much to be found among the people of the Arab world. T.E. Lawrence, the famous Lawrence of Arabia, in his book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, describes the Arabs he met and came to know as a black and white people, with “no half-tones in their register of vision.” Their thoughts ran to extremes and superlatives. It was the way they thought and the way they spoke. [Caird, 110]

Well, in the same way, we have that characteristic idiom – “a tendency to think in extremes without qualification, in black and white without intervening shades of gray” – that absoluteness of thought and expression reflected in such a description of the godly man as we have it in Psalm 112. You have noticed this, I’m sure, in your reading of the Bible. You have been on the lookout for a qualification or some recognition that things aren’t always the way the Bible describes them  to be and have been surprised not to find it. Respectful children did not always live a long life in the land. Why doesn’t the author of Psalm 112 admit that? The Lord’s faithful followers did not always enjoy healthy children and lots of them, earthly prosperity, and long life, but the Bible continues to describe a godly life as blessed in these ways.

The evidence of a more nuanced understanding of life is everywhere to be found in the Bible, of course, and even here in Psalm 112. Did you notice in v. 7 that even this man gets bad news from time to time! And, of course, as we all know, the Bible itself often directly addresses the fact that God’s people undergo sometimes terrible afflictions, that their lives, by any worldly measurement, sometimes compare unfavorably to those of the unbelieving and the unrighteous. The books of Job and Ecclesiastes deal with this reality honestly and openly; so does the magnificent 73rd Psalm. So does Paul in Romans 8; so does the Book of Revelation. The Bible knows the other side of the believer’s reality, talks about it a lot, and does not hesitate to describe it. But it remains characteristic of Hebrew thought and expression to put things absolutely and in extremes, side by side, rather than to qualify and explain.

So, in the first place, when you come across a description of your life such as you have it in Psalm 112, remember that the Bible talks at length about the other side of the believer’s reality. But in faithfulness to Hebrew idiom it describes the blessing of faith and godliness in extremes, just as it describes the hardships of a believer’s life in extremes. We are not, you and I, literally, as we read both in Psalm 44 and Romans 8 “being killed all the day long…” We have to learn to read and appreciate the Bible as a book written by Hebrews and by Jews. I think, myself, the Bible is wonderfully stronger; its message carries a greater wallop because it is written as it is. You wouldn’t want a 21st century lawyer to write a part of Holy Scripture would you? And it is our task to love the Bible’s way of putting things and to try to get to the bottom of it because this is the way God himself chose to write the book in which he would reveal himself to us. In any case, this is our Bible, this is the Word of God, and this is the way it reads. We need to learn to appreciate that.

  1. Second, the Bible itself teaches us to recognize that spiritual blessings – the blessings of peace with God, the forgiveness of sins, the love of God in our hearts – are the more important and are often described in terms of or under the guise of physical and earthly blessings. So even when the blessings are all physical in character or nature as they are here—earthly, temporal—in Psalm 112, the fact of the matter is the blessings really being described are deeper, higher and greater than these.

 

For example, in Psalm 73 the man, now returned to sound thinking about the prosperity of the wicked and the life of the godly, leaves church with his eyes a fountain of tears and his heart aglow with the love of God, and says,

“My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.”

That word “portion” is very revealing. The term, “portion,” is a technical term and refers to that part of the Promised Land that was allotted to every particular Jewish tribe and every particular Jewish family. But here he says that God is his portion. God is his Promised Land, God his farm and his house and his fields and his crops. In a similar way, Habakkuk says, at the end of his book,

“Though the fig tree should not blossom,
Nor fruit be on the vines,
The produce of the olive fail
And the fields yield no food,
The flock be cut off from the fold
And there be no herd in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”

He too is acknowledging that there are greater things than earthly prosperity and that if a man or woman is loved by God the circumstances of his earthly life are of relatively little importance. And, of course, again and again in the psalms also the troubles and sorrows of life are faced squarely and yet the poet takes comfort and strength from his knowledge of the love and faithfulness of God.

“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
Than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” [84:10]

Commentators remind us that the contrast intended is one of status as well as location. The man is saying he would rather occupy a lowly position and be near the Lord than to be exalted elsewhere. [Kidner, ii, 306]

The same point is put another way in Psalm 137:5-6:

“If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
If I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem
Above my highest joy!

An exile, now a slave in Babylon wrote that. God’s people knew very well that earthly blessings were not the real blessings of God’s covenant. Those blessings belonged to a believer no matter his outward circumstances and no one could take them away.

When the Lord Jesus warns his hearers, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul,” he isn’t saying anything that the Word of God had not taught many times before. And Paul is only repeating this same idea when he writes in Phil. 3:8:

“…I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

So, in the second place, after respecting the Hebrew idiom we must take the expressions such as we find in Psalm 112 in their larger context. Earthly blessings are wonderful when they are the gift of God, and we may expect a great measure of them, but there are much greater blessings than these. Indeed, earthly prosperity is in many ways just an image or a metaphor of the true prosperity of God’s people, a prosperity of love, of peace, of righteousness, and salvation.  And that leads us to our third and last perspective.

  1. The viewpoint of the Bible is always and thoroughly eschatological.

 

That is, no earthly prosperity can be the truest and greatest blessing of God because death must bring it to an end, a point the Bible is resolutely realistic about. The difference between the righteous man and the wicked one must not finally be that great if it does not survive death and does not figure in the next world. Life goes by too quickly. Prosperity, even great prosperity, proves to be finally just the pleasure of a moment. But, of course, life does go on and the difference between the righteous and the wicked does figure in the next world when all the overstatement will be an absolutely literal account of what is true. The prosperity of the godly man of Psalm 112 is a prosperity that lasts forever. Unlike the wicked man in the last verse, he does not have to resign himself to the fact that his desires will perish.

We have the full-orbed New Testament doctrine of believers rising again and living forever in Daniel 12:2.

“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise [like our man in Psalm 112!] shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

More than one scholar, in fact a large number of them now, have pointed out that a belief in immortality or life of some kind after death seems to be ingrained in human consciousness and that it is doubtful if any people have ever been without some idea of an after-life. And that fact has led a great many biblical scholars, of all theological stripes, to admit something that used to be not admitted, that the Hebrews had a robust doctrine of life after death. They didn’t doubt that the soul survived the body and at some point it became clear to them that the body itself would rise and live again.

We find this, of course in the Psalms. In Psalm 16 we read that the Lord will not abandon the believer’s soul to Sheol and that the Lord makes known to him the path of life where in Yahweh’s presence there is fullness of joy and at his right hand are pleasures forevermore. The fact that that point is made so artlessly is some greater indication of the fact that it was a commonplace of Hebrew faith and belief. In Psalm 49 we read of the Lord ransoming the souls of believers from the power of Sheol and of his receiving their souls and that hope is made the proof of the fact that the righteous are always much better off than the wicked, however rich and prosperous the wicked may be. In Psalm 73 we read of the believer’s hope that though “our flesh and our heart may fail, God is the strength of our heart and our portion forever,” and that while those who are far from the Lord shall perish, “afterward you will receive us to glory.”

Now what all of this means is immensely practical and important in its consequence as we open the pages of God’s Word and read Holy Scripture. It means that when the author of Hebrews tells us in his 11th chapter that the believers in the ancient church were always looking past this world to the next he is simply confirming what the OT teaches us in any event, that there was always an eschatological cast, a forward looking cast to biblical faith. This world and its blessings were never the main thing, never the chief focus of the joy of our salvation, never the great difference that it made to love and serve the Lord God. It was always heaven; it was always eternity in God’s fellowship and presence. “I will be a God to you and to your children after you,” meant for them as it does for us, a life together in the perfection of human existence and in eternal and perfect communion with God.

So read Psalm 112 and its loading up of the blessings of believing life. But read it as part of the Hebrew Bible as it is; read it as the manifesto of someone who knows that spiritual realities in this world are far more important than physical ones; and read it as the confession of faith of someone who has his eye firmly fixed on the world to come and you will understand Psalm 112 with the same mind as the man who wrote it under the influence of the Holy Spirit. That is the wise man or woman, the righteous man or woman, the believing man or woman, and that wonderful, rich, prosperous, fruitful life is their life and yours!